Young Author Iweala Set for Med School
Sunday, February 11, 2007; 7:46 PM
NEW YORK -- When Uzodinma Iweala's debut novel, "Beasts of No Nation," was published in 2005, book critics jostled for room at the literary altar to offer praise.
They called the book, about a child soldier in an unnamed African country, "brilliant," "astonishing," "riveting," "extraordinary," "searing," "electrifying" and "powerful." Salman Rushdie wrote, "It's one of those rare occasions when you see a first novel and you think, 'This guy is going to be very, very good.'"
For Iweala, a 24-year-old graduate of Harvard University, much has happened since then. He has won numerous literary awards, moved to his parents' native Nigeria and relocated to New York City to work for an anti-poverty organization.
He also recently signed a two-book deal with publisher HarperCollins. This month, he plans to return to Nigeria, complete the first book by the end of the summer and begin medical school in the fall at Columbia University.
"I don't think the two are mutually exclusive," Iweala said of writing books and attending medical school as he sat in a coffee shop the day after he returned from an African writers' conference in Italy. "Will it be hard to do the two together? Oh, yeah, it will be very hard. I'm not kidding myself."
Iweala grew up in a Washington, D.C., suburb, the second child and first son of Ikemba, an emergency-room doctor, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated economist, and former Nigerian finance minister and World Bank vice president. Iweala's older sister is studying to be a doctor at Harvard Medical School and his two younger brothers are Harvard undergraduates.
Iweala's novella began as a short story he wrote after reading an article about child soldiers when he was a student at St. Albans School in Washington. He put the story away but later retrieved and expanded it after hearing a former child soldier speak at Harvard. He spent a summer in Nigeria researching the subject before submitting the expanded story _ narrated by a boy in language similar to Pidgin English spoken in Nigeria _ as his senior English thesis.
The boy, Agu, loves to read and wants to be a doctor or engineer until he witnesses his father's murder during a raging civil war and is forced to fight in the conflict.
Writer Jamaica Kincaid, who was Iweala's thesis adviser, later gave the work to her agent, who showed it to HarperCollins executive editor Tim Duggan.
"It was unlike anything I'd read before," said Duggan, who will edit Iweala's next two books. "The diction, voice and writing style were very unique. It was an emotionally heart-pounding story. It made me look at things that were happening in Africa in a different way.
"I think he's going to be one of the best literary writers this country has. In each book, I think he will break new ground in terms of style and voice. He's a rare talent and he has great range and versatility. I think whatever he does is going to be unusual and fascinating. I want to be there to help cultivate him in his career as a writer."
Iweala's next book is nonfiction and is about the AIDS epidemic in Africa. After that, he plans to return to fiction.
Last February, Iweala, who has also written book reviews and nonfiction pieces for The New York Times and other publications, moved to New York City to work on health issues for the Millennium Villages Project. Based at Columbia University, the project tries to reduce extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.
This month, Iweala will leave the project and return to Nigeria, a country he has visited constantly since he was a boy and where he also has citizenship. It's a place where his family is "very interested" in seeing conditions improve, he said. He lived there before moving to New York, helping build homes for victims of religious conflict.
He is thinking about moving to the West African country after medical school. "You have to judge where you would be the most useful and helpful," said Iweala, his voice bearing traces of the Nigerian lilt. "I'd probably be more helpful in Africa than I would be here. There are more issues that speak to me in a more immediate sense there than here.
"But this is all the talk of a 24-year-old who doesn't have a wife or kids so I'm just talking nonsense, really."
He is sure about his current pursuits _ writing and medicine _ which stem from his passion for putting words on paper, a "little bit of pressure" from his parents to study medicine and his family's emphasis on choosing a career that improves other people's lives, he explained. They remind him how "lucky" he is to have so many "advantages," he said. And his grandfather, a Methodist minister in Nigeria, constantly repeats the biblical proverb that to whom much is given much is also expected.
As he entered Harvard, his parents "strongly suggested" he focus on premed but he insists they weren't dictatorial. He also majored in English, American Literature and Language. He'd planned to go to medical school right out of Harvard. But that was before the unexpected publication and success of "Beasts."
Writers, to a degree, exist in a bubble, Iweala said, because they are removed from other people. As a doctor _ a doctor with extraordinary writing abilities _ he believes he can have greater impact.
"Who says that's the absolute rule: that you can't do the two together, that you can't do the two together well and that it won't enrich your life to have both?"